Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
The UNLV athletic department has nothing to hide with its budget.
That’s part of the logic behind Director of Athletics Jim Livengood making the details of his $26 to $27 million budget available to the public later this month. A copy of the department’s finances — with everything from gains and losses, salaries and expenses, and fundraising figures — will be posted on the department’s website and mailed to donors.
Livengood, who was hired in December 2009, plans on making good on his goal of operating the department without $7 million in state support it receives annually. Giving the public access to information about where funds are spent is a critical part of the process, he said.
While raising at least $7 million more annually is easier said than done -- and something that is years away -- it's an attainable goal, Livengood said.
“We set some aggressive goals and we are right on target to meet those goals,” Livengood said.
Gov. Brian Sandoval on Jan. 24 will present a proposed budget ahead of the state Legislature's session that begins next month. With the state in a poor economic climate, several entities are bracing for cuts.
In 2009, the UNLV and UNR athletic budgets each were trimmed by $300,000. Livengood has no idea how significant the cuts will be during this session, but he is certain there will be less state money available.
“That’s why my goal is to get all state money out of athletics,” Livengood said.
Enter Julio Freire.
Freire, UNLV's senior associate athletic director of development, heads the Rebel Athletic Fund, which is the fundraising division of the department.
For the fiscal year that ends in June, the group’s goal is to have 1,600 donors contributing $4.5 million, with an additional $3.5 million in future-year commitments. For instance, a donor could make a $5,000 gift, paying $1,000 annually over five years.
He has seen early success, especially when considering the area’s rough economy.
Last fiscal year the fund had 1,329 contributions and brought in $3.7 million. This fiscal year it has 1,457 backers and is on track to meet its fundraising goals, Freire said.
“This is arguably the worst economy this country has seen in 80 years,” he said. “With that being said, there is a tremendous amount of Rebel supporters who’ve stepped up. Certainly we have goals. We certainly want to cover that 7 million number from the state.”
Part of the reason for the increase in supporters is the relationship that Freire’s crew of about eight, school officials and coaches have with university supporters.
Earlier this fall, longtime backer Bobby Ellis attended a luncheon where first-year football coach Bobby Hauck was speaking. Ellis, a successful business owner in the tow truck and auto auction industry, was so impressed with Hauck that he did something he hadn’t done in more than 20 years — attend a Rebels football game.
Ellis purchased 93 season tickets, paying a premium rate of $27,000 to show his support. Some season-ticket packages for football cost just $100, but the seat premium upgrade for football and basketball is one way the department makes money on ticket sales.
“That football coach, what a guy,” Ellis said. “You’ve got to hear him speak. He’s going to take that program to a new level, I can sense that.”
Ellis and his wife, Sandy, have been season-ticket holders for basketball since the Thomas & Mack Center opened in the mid-1980s, purchasing the same 14 seats in Section 107.
This year, they took their contributions to another level. They pledged $250,000 to the athletic fund, giving $50,000 annually for five years.
The relationship the Ellis family has with Freire and his crew was a reason behind the generosity.
“These guys are down-to-earth people,” said Ellis, whose Henderson office is packed with autographed basketballs, photos and other memorabilia documenting his passion for UNLV. “Julio is a great, great guy. We hit it off right away. I can’t see how anyone can say something bad about Julio or the people on his team.”
Freire, who previously held a similar post at the University of Arizona, hit the ground running when he started at UNLV about a year ago. He worked under Livengood at Arizona, where he said they raised $8 million annually with another $4 million in future gifts.
He said he feels confident about duplicating that success in Las Vegas. Freire can be spotted at home basketball games walking through the crowd greeting fans as if he's running for president.
“First and foremost, we want to be there for them. They aren’t just a number to us, trust me on that,” Freire said. “Whether it’s access to my cell phone or getting (a duplicate) for a lost parking pass, we are always going to be there.
“We want to take care of the current donor base,” he continued. ”They are critically important to us. We want to provide world-class service to those ticketholders.”
Freire, for instance, took the Ellis family to dinner last week at the Foundation Room at Mandalay Bay. He also throws parties for donors, upgrades tickets to a club box for football or helps them get closer to the court for basketball.
Accounting business partners John Wightman and Mark Rich, both UNLV graduates, have given $250,000 over five years, as well as other personal contributions.
Their firm, Rich Wightman & Company CPAs, employs more than a dozen UNLV graduates. They credit the university with creating several memorable moments in their lives and don’t hold back when it comes to helping re-create those moments — especially for athletes.
“It’s a large contribution, certainly, but we are very fortunate in Las Vegas that our firm has been successful,” Wightman said. “This is one of the ways Mark and I choose to give back to the community.”
Continuing to reach fundraising goals won’t strictly hinge on the relationship between department officials and the community. It also is tied to success on the field of play.
“Are people more willing to jump on the bandwagon when things are going well? Absolutely,” Freire said. “There is a direct correlation between the resources at hand and the success on the court or field.”
Additionally, winning also provides immediate help to the budget. If the football team can reach a bowl game, for instance, that would bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to the department. It will also receive $600,000 for TCU’s appearance in the Rose Bowl last week as part of the Bowl Championship Series.
Some would argue UNLV enjoying football success is nearly as impossible as raising $7 million annually in this economy. Livengood, Freire and others disagree.
They said they feel the department is on the verge of greatness — one donation and victory at a time.
“Our primary goal is for each of 17 programs to be competitive certainly in the Mountain West Conference, but equally competitive in the NCAA,” Livengood said.